You used to be a stand-up comedian. How different is writing to stand-up comedy?
I was a stand-up comedian for a very short period but during that time it became incredibly clear that I was much happier writing the material than performing it. Hearing people laugh at your jokes is addictive but not addictive enough for me. I’m basically a very lazy person and comedy is one of the hardest jobs in the world – it’s not just about putting yourself out there and living and dying on stage, it’s gigging from place to place, it’s a nightlife lived in small clubs and nightclubs. When I write I’m cosy at home, surrounded by the people I love. I get to create a whole world and live in it for a while – and, joy of all joys, I can do it without leaving my house.
Rabbit and her family manage to find laughter in the darkest moments. When did you first appreciate the comic potential of such a tragic situation?
I found comfort in comedy from a very young age. I come from a long line of people with a keen sense of humour. My mother became ill with MS when I was five. We lived with her mother until we were all re-homed when I was eleven. During that time, where others seemed to find horror and sadness, we found laughter and joy.
Were there any parts of The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes that you found particularly hard to write?
I laughed and cried my heart out all throughout this book. Rabbit was a real labour of love for me. A mother and daughter being torn apart was keenly felt. Also, the back story about a young man’s struggle with MS was personal for me, because of my own experience of that insidious disease but also for my husband. The character of Johnny was loosely based on one of his best friends.
How important was it for you to set the novel in Ireland?
I didn’t even consider placing it anywhere else. These characters could live and die anywhere in the world but Ireland is my home. It’s where my experience of love and loss has come from, so it made no sense to place the story anywhere else.
You write really convincingly about family relationships. Do you come from a big family like Rabbit’s?
I started out with a mother and father but that dynamic didn’t last long. My second family was comprised of mom, granny Gallagher and me. Next I was fostered in Kerry by my aunt and uncle and became one of six. When I visited my mom in her care home I stayed with her sister and husband and their four boys. They became my home away from home. I have a half sister who I’ve gotten to know and love as an adult, and when I married my husband I gained a whole new family in his mother, father, three sisters and their husbands and children. I think it’s fair to say I’ve experienced families from all sides and I suppose that’s why they are my little obsession.
In ma and other members of the family, you have created amazingly vivid and strong characters. Are they based on individuals in your own life?
Ma is definitely inspired by 3 women in my life, she’s 50% my husband’s mother Terry, 30% the aunt who raised me and 20% my father’s mother. They are similar types: strong, funny, kind, fragile, flawed brilliant ladies. I love ma, she’s the character that I could write for again and again. All my characters are inspired by combinations of people I know well or those I’ve met and been intrigued by. The beauty of taking traits from different individuals and piecing them together into credible, believable characters is that so many people from different walks of life approach me to tell me they know those characters, it’s their own mother or friend or sister or brother. It genuinely makes my day when a stranger tells me I’ve written about their life.
You’re also a scriptwriter. Can you imagine The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes as a film?
I can imagine every book as a film or TV series at some point because I write a lot of dialogue in my novels. For me, a character’s voice makes them come alive. I can see and hear the Hayes family as if they are standing in front of me living and breathing. It’s an obvious choice but I think Brenda Fricker would make an amazing Ma Hayes.